The Ongoing “Complaynt”


I am approaching the midpoint of Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and I absolutely love how it is all coming together (as Lydgate’s works often do). I knew it was going to be a long trek when I started, but having now spent as much time with the poem, I have gotten to know aspects of it that I had never culled out in casual reading, and have gained so much more appreciation for it. Per usual, this is a cursory reading, so for more in-depth discussions, read my sources, but in the meantime here is more of my work, starting from where I left off last time:

“What meneth this? What ys this wonder ure
Of purveance, yf I shal hit calle,
Of God of Love that fals hem so assure,
And trew, alas, doun of the whele be falle?
And yet, in sothe, this is the worst of alle:
That Falshed wrongfully of Trouth hath the name,
And Trouthe, agenwarde, of Falshed bereth the blame.

The knight begins simply enough with a common set of questions, echoing Mars’ inquiries in Chaucer’s “Complaint of Mars:” “What meneth this? What is this mystihed?” (line 224). He wonders about “purveance,” that is used throughout Chaucer’s Boece in reference to an omniscient God, but applies it here to the God of Love. Further, the God of Love is also paralleled to Fortune where Love appears to have a say as to who is at the top or bottom of the “Whele” – a clear reference to Fortune’s Wheel that moves according to her whims. Boethius believes Philosophy should be trusted over Fortune for the very reason of Fortune’s fickleness. Her wheel changes direction without reason, as opposed to Philosophy’s adherence to rationale when deciding a course of action. By equating Love with Fortune, Lydgate creates an image of Love as capricious or flighty, yet fully aware of man’s state, much like an omniscient God. Thus, in Lydgatean terms, Love is a powerful force.

“This blynde chaunce, this stormy aventure,
In love hath most his experience,
For who that doth with Trouth most his cure
Shal for his mede fynde most offence,
That serveth Love with al his diligence;
For who can feyne under loulyhede
Ne fayleth not to fynde grace and spede.

The first line is a direct reference Chaucerian texts. First to Criseyde when she debates the pros and cons of allowing herself to fall in love “ffor loue is yet the mooste stormy lyf, / Right of hym self, that euere was bigonne ” (Book 2, lines 778-779). It is also a reference to the Troy Book: “The trowble and aduersite / That is in Loue, and his stormy lawe” (Part II, Lines 2544-2545). The “stormy” concept is not uncommon in Chaucerian composition outside of references reserved solely for Love, as seen in the Clerk’s Tale: “O stormy peple! unsad and evere untrewe! Ay indiscreet and chaungynge as a fane!” (Part IV, lines 995-996).

In all of these passages “stormy” is used to electrifying ends to describe chaotic, and hence inconstant, conditions. Love is lawless, volatile, and fickle. This is the state in which Lydgate receives and reuses the term. “Stormy” is not simply synonymous with “tumultuous,” but rather represents something outright violent and ultimately destructive. The catalogue of lovers that is about to begin will solidify this claim.

“For I loved oon ful longe sythe agoon
With al my hert, body, and ful myght,
And to be ded my hert cannot goon
From his hest, but hold that he hath hight.
Thogh I be banysshed out of her syght
And by her mouthe damned that I shal deye,
Unto my behest yet I wil ever obeye.

This falls into the same category as a previous catalog in which those who are untrue are rewarded, while the those true are punished.

Clearly the knight is distraught over his complete loss of interaction with his lady. Even when his love was not necessarily reciprocated, he took solace in her presence that she now denies. However, it must be noted that he is to be out of her sight, but it is not specified that she must remain out of his sight, hinting at the potential for further voyeuristic encounters. It is easy to forget, but must not be forgotten that the knight’s words come to us through the narrator’s spying, and thus via one act of voyeurism, with the possibility of an act within an act where we may indirectly (thrice removed!) see the lady. The audience receives the same satisfaction from perhaps viewing the lady in this instance as they did when first seeing Criseyde from Troilus’s point of view.

“I take recorde of Palamides,
The trwe man, the noble worthy knyght,
That ever loved, and of hys peyne no relese;
Notwithstondyng his manhode and his myght,
Love unto him did ful grete unright,
For ay the bette he did in chevalrye,
The more he was hindred by envye;

The knight begins another catalogue of figures with whom the audience would be familiar, and who would best illustrate his point. These are the men who truly loved but were denied any reward for their love, and the men who loved falsely but were allowed to enjoy their lovers’s reciprocation. Palamides was the saracen Arthurian knight who loved Isolde but was unable to obtain her love in return. Instead, she gave it via trickery and deceit to Tristan (which is not a statement meant to villainize him, but rather remark upon the nature and origin of their relationship).

“And ay the bette he dyd in every place
Throgh his knyghthode and besy peyn,
The ferther was he fro his ladys grace,
For to her mercie myght he never ateyn,
And to his deth he coude hyt not refreyn
For no daunger, but ay obey and serve
As he best coude, pleynly til he sterve.

Palamides not only faithfully loved Isolde, but was overall chivalrous and an excellent knight. His unrealized love is a combination of Fate, Love, and Fortune acting cruelly towards him, along with basic human elements such as Envy, that repays his prowess and acumen with hardship and pain. In other words, he suffered for being true – to his love, and to himself.

“What was the fyne also of Ercules,
For al his conquest and his worthynesse,
That was of strengthe alone pereles?
For, lyke as bokes of him list expresse,
He set pilers thro his high prouesse
Away at Cades for to signifie
That no man myght hym passe in chevalrie;

Hercules, who has been depicted in numerous composition from every time period since antiquity, is known for his love of Deianira, who nevertheless doubted his love due to rumors she had heard about his newfound love for Iole. In an attempt to regain his love she inadvertently caused his death (her culpability fluctuates with each version read, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides, to Boccacio’s  Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, to Gower’s Confessio, and Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale” and Parliament). Whether or not she intentionally provided him with a poisoned cloak as retribution for what she perceived as lack of loyalty to her, or whether she unknowingly provided it believing it would restore him to her, does not change the fact that he died despite having lived with honesty and truth, as “no man myght hym passe in chevelrie.”

As for the “pilers,” they are a reference to the pillars Hercules built to symbolize one of his twelve labors, namely taking the cattle from the giant, Geryon.

“The whiche pilers ben ferre by-yonde Ynde
Beset of golde for a remembraunce.
And, for al that, was he sete behynde
With hem that Love list febly avaunce;
For him set laste upon a daunce
Agens whom helpe may no strife –
For al his trouth, he lost his lyfe.

It is important to remember the reason for Hercules’ labors – he murdered his first wife and children. Granted, it was due to a madness instilled by Hera, he was nevertheless greatly grieved by his deeds and sought out atonement, leading to Apollo’s advice that he should subject himself to the king and serve him in his nearly impossible labors. He faithfully completed each one as penitence for his actions.

His second attempt at love, with Deianira, is here referenced through love’s “daunce,” an idiom often used to allude to love’s failure. These lines have been translated before endowing Hercules with agency as he initiates his movement towards love, but such a translation remains unconvincing. If love is as fickle as the poem makes it out to be, and chance and fortune are at the forefront of human activity, then it becomes very unbelievable that any man, even Hercules, would be in full control over his decision to love, without even taking into the account the even more meager amount of control he holds over his love choice.

For other examples of word usage, the “daunce” appears in Chaucer’s Troilus: “Now, thonked be God, he may goon in the daunce / of hem that Love list febly for to avaunce” (lines 517-518), and “Pandarus . . . wel koude ech a deel / Th’ olde daunce, and every point therinne” ( Book III, lines 694-695). Then, it was used to describe the Wife of Bath, who  “Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce, / For she koude of that art the olde daunce” (GP 475-476). The idiomatic expression is certainly not restricted to these examples and abounds throughout medieval literature, but the general gist remains the same.

From here the catalogue of lovers continues as Lydgate revisits Pheobus and Daphne from earlier in the poem, and in my my next post, I will, too.


Krausser, E. “The Complaint of the Black Knight.”

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. The Complaint of the Black Knight. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

Norton-Smith, John, ed. A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe. In John Lydgate, Poems.

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